Monday, February 08, 2010

Dubious DNA technique arrives in Australia

The doubts about it could well make it useless in getting convictions -- but it might help exonerate the innocent

The State Government has announced an $8 million upgrade to Brisbane's Forensic and Scientific Services Centre (formerly the John Tonge Centre) to enable it to conduct sophisticated testing known as low-level DNA sampling. But experts, including former John Tonge Centre chief forensic scientist Professor Leo Freney, fear unreliable low-level DNA analysis could result in innocent people being jailed. The low-level sampling technique enables scientists to extract DNA information from tiny samples of evidence, such as minuscule blood stains.

However, the technique has proven problematic. Last December the Victorian police commissioner was forced to ban forensic officers from presenting low-level DNA evidence in courts after poor sampling practices resulted in a man being wrongly convicted for rape. The Victorian Government is now conducting a five-year review of cases involving DNA evidence gleaned using the technique.

In the UK in 2007, low-level DNA testing was halted and cases reviewed after Omagh bombing suspect Sean Hoey was cleared of the crime when the reliability of low-level DNA analysis was questioned during his trial.

Senior Director of Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services Greg Shaw said the Government was aware of the controversy in Victoria, but Queensland used a different model to interpret DNA tests. "The courts and the public can be confident in the efficacy and accuracy of forensic DNA analysis conducted by Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services," Mr Shaw said.

But Prof Freney yesterday urged the Government to proceed with caution. He said low-level DNA analysis involved getting a weak sample and amplifying it more times than the usual 22 cycles. "A feature of low-level DNA is that you can also amplify up contaminants and that might give a false result," he said. "If this stain is going to convict someone and put them in jail for life, my God they've got to be very careful."

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties vice-president Terry O'Gorman said he did not believe the Forensic and Scientific Services Centre could be trusted with such a controversial technique. "Over the years it has been subject to a number of reviews and has been found significantly wanting," Mr O'Gorman said.

The Government admitted Queensland's forensic services had endured problems with delays and procedures. "It is fair to say that the laboratory was not operating to its best capacity, but it will now," a government spokesman said. [!!!!]

Original report here

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